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February 22, 2011

Birds of a Feather: Minimalism and Ultrarunning

“Exactly,” said Dumbledore. “Harry’s wand and Voldemort’s wand share cores. Each of them contains a feather from the tail of the same phoenix … ”

“So what happens when a wand meets its brother?” asked Sirius.

“They will not work properly against each other” said Dumbledore.

- From Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

A couple of introductory notes are in order: first, this post is part of a larger Carnival of Blogging spearheaded by Jason Fitzgerald at Strength Running, who rounded up several writers to write simultaneously on the topic of minimalist running. After you’re finished here, be sure to check out the links to related posts from other bloggers.

And if you’re a new reader sent here from one of the other websites, welcome! While this is ostensibly a blog about running, you never know what you’re gonna find here. Take a look around, make yourself at home, and kick your shoes off. No, seriously – kick your shoes off, because they’re probably doing terrible things to your feet. Unless you’re a minimalist, of course – in which case you’ve definitely got a friend in me.

Despite the introductory passage above, my assignment wasn’t Minimalism and Harry Potter – although don’t put it past me, I might try that someday – but rather, Minimalism and Ultrarunning. Since I practice both of these things extensively, this topic seemed like the easiest contribution for me to make – and I have to confess that I initially thought that the connection between these two subjects would be obvious.

After all, the Shot Heard ‘Round the World in this whole barefoot and minimalist revolution was Christopher McDougall’s landmark Born to Run, which presented a manifesto against the running shoe industry while simultaneously chronicling the adventures of a few world-class ultrarunners alongside the indigenous people of Mexico’s desolate Copper Canyons. (You can see my full review of the book if you’re curious.) It was all right there: minimalism (since the Tarahumara wear leather sandals, it’s not entirely accurate to describe them as barefooters), trail running, and ultramarathoners – so we’re all one big happy family now, right?

Scott Jurek and Arnulfo Quimare; photo by Luis Escobar

Well, not exactly. What I’ve found in the two years I’ve been showing up to ultras in minimalist footwear is that there’s still a fair amount of skepticism out there about whether the worlds of minimalism and ultrarunning should coexist. New barefoot or minimalist practitioners are correctly wary of increasing their distances beyond the local neighborhood 10K. And conventional wisdom in the ultra community seems to say that minimalist running is fine for short distances or easy terrain, but for big mileage on challenging technical trails, you need shoes that are rugged enough to protect your feet from taking a beating.

I can attest that such claims are simply bogus.

I’ve done ultras in moccasins as well as a variety of minimalist shoes currently on the market. Every mile of my training and racing in 2010 was in minimalist footwear, and I’ve had no reason to change that approach in 2011, up to and including a 100-miler this July. While that may sound unusual, I’m not really breaking new ground in this regard, as several ultrarunners have completed 100-milers in Vibram FiveFingers over the past two years. And I’d wager to bet that nearly every single one of them was told at least once along the way – either in training or during the race itself - that their skimpy footwear was insufficient for the task they were undertaking.

Thankfully, I can report that the acceptance of minimalism has increased significantly over the course of a single racing season last year. When I ran the Quicksilver 50M in Soft Star RunAmocs, virtually everyone I encountered on the course – runners and volunteers alike – were somewhat dumbfounded that someone would do such a thing. By the time I did October’s Firetrails 50 in Terra Plana Evos, minimalism was something my fellow runners had heard about, even if they were wary of trying it themselves. This year, I’m predicting that instead of being incredulous or cautioning me about potential dangers, most folks will just wish me well and hope it works out for me.

50 miles in RunAmocs

I suspect that such easy accommodation reflects an essential truth about both minimalists and ultrarunners: at our cores, we have a very common history and a very similar psychological makeup. Like wands from the same phoenix, at some point in our respective development we were instilled with the same magical properties before ultimately forming into seemingly separate disciplines.

First, the history part: the underlying basis of the minimalist movement is a “back to nature” mentality (which I wrote about last week) that replicates the way our ancestors ran, in the manner that God created for them rather than using a technique that modern technology imposed upon them. Well, where exactly do you think all those cavemen were running? It wasn’t in asphalt subdivisions or on all-weather stadium tracks – it was in the dirt and grass, on hilltops and in valleys, through forests and across streams and wherever else the deer paths led them. And if you believe the idea of persistence hunting, chances are that those primitive trail runners were covering exceedingly long distances on a regular basis. Minimalism and ultrarunning were born together at the dawn of time, but somehow became separated and estranged by the dawn of the 21st Century.

As for the psychology: the mental approach that brings success in minimalist running is so remarkably similar to the mindset of ultrarunners that the two entities are plainly kindred spirits. Both groups are set apart from the mainstream running community, occasionally even outcast as freaks. Both take on tasks that seem impossible to casual observers. And both need to have healthy doses of determination and perseverance in order to succeed.

Both groups also need to be extremely patient with the process. Consider, for example, one of the best-known pieces of advice about barefoot/minimalist running, attributed to a character featured prominently in Born to Run named Caballo Blanco: Easy, then light, then smooth, then fast. Take care of the first three, and fast will take care of itself. Compare that to a common ultrarunning adage: Start easy, then taper off. Ultrarunners who press for speed too early typically blow up in the later stages of a race, whereas those who stay cool and let the race unfold naturally tend to have their best performances.

In each case, there’s a counterintuitive imperative to set your ego aside, to refrain from forcing your will upon the process, and to let things progress and develop in their own time. You have to have faith that what you’re pursuing is completely attainable, and your means of doing it is perfectly correct - even when virtually all external feedback indicates otherwise.

More than any other factor, the patience angle is probably the one that demonstrates how minimalism and ultrarunning are birds of a feather. Truth be told, if I were still chasing 10K age group awards or road marathon PRs, I probably wouldn’t be a dedicated minimalist runner: the huge initial setbacks in speed and the long process of trying to regain it again would require more time than I’d be willing to commit. Fortunately, I was already an ultrarunner before embracing minimalism, so the prospect of chilling out and making progress in baby steps wasn’t all that daunting.

In the final analysis, that’s the way it’s meant to be with minimalism and ultrarunning: two sibling activities built from the same core, extracting the same qualities and offering the same rewards to both of their practitioners. It’s improper to pit them against each other or to try and exclude one from the other; my hope is that in years to come they will be accepted as members of the same family, free to intermingle and enjoy each other’s company without anybody questioning who really belongs there.


See the other articles from this Carnival of Blogging:

Pete Larson on Stride Length for Minimalist Runners at Runblogger

David Csonka on Evolutionary Roots of Minimalism at Naturally Engineered

Greg Strosaker on Focusing on Minimalist Form at PreDawn Runner

Matt Wilson on Mistakes to Avoid at Run Luau Run

Jason Fitzgerald at Strength Running, who is the host and organizer.

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Paul 2/22/11, 8:55 PM  

"Several" That's hardly convincing! I'd love to see folk run in the mountains here in NZ- they are brutal on the feet.

All the best with your running. I've removed this preaching from my feed. It's getting rather boring in between your consumerism ramblings!

Donald 2/22/11, 11:09 PM  

Paul: Thanks for proving my point. Happy trails.

shel 2/23/11, 12:21 PM  

paul from new zealand, how exactly did your ancestors make it around on all those dreadfully brutal mountain surfaces without a pair of salomans or vasques on their feet? the poor souls must have lived in a constant state of "tore up". thank God science and marketing have come along to rescue us.

donald, well said as usual. personally i have been minimally doing ultras now for 2 years, and have had success and zero injury. which contrasts with my life pre-minimalism when i was a hot mess of injuries.

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